ST. PAUL, Minn. — This was a small, subtle yet important gesture, one that is sure to help strengthen the relationship between the Vezina-calibre goalie and the head coach of the Winnipeg Jets.
Not that the relationship needs mending, since Rick Bowness has gone out of the way to compliment Connor Hellebuyck as he’s been leaning on him through the first quarter of this NHL season, but sometimes you simply need to trust what that goalie is seeing from the blue paint.
This example came at 9:46 of the third period in a game where the Jets were clearly outclassed by a Central Division opponent.
The Wild had just scored their second power-play goal of the contest to make the score 6-1 and when Bowness looked toward Hellebuyck, several observers wondered if he was asking him if he had any interest in coming out of the game for a mercy pull.
In some ways, it would have made plenty of sense for Hellebuyck to take the final 10 minutes and change of the third period to relax and begin the process of decompressing as he prepared for Friday’s marquee matchup with the Dallas Stars, who continue to sit atop the Central Division standings.
Instead, Bowness yelled “goalie interference?” in Hellebuyck’s direction and the man behind the mask vehemently nodded his head in the affirmative, which prompted the Jets to use a coach’s challenge on the play.
The move tells you several important things.
One: Hellebuyck hates to get scored on, even when the game appears to already be out of hand.
Two: Bowness made it clear he’s got the back of his star netminder.
“His stick was clearly in our goalie’s skate. Clearly. Listen, there’s going to be battles around the net. You’re still responsible for your stick, in our eyes, and his stick clearly goes under Connor’s stick, his skate and knocks him down,” Bowness said after what was the most lopsided loss of the season for the Jets, a 6-1 defeat. “This goaltender interference is a grey area. It really is. But when we saw that and Connor kind of mentioned, motioned to the bench. I’m going to support Connor. He made the right call. He looks at me and he thinks it’s goaltender interference, I will go with him 100 per cent.”
It’s critical for a coach and a No. 1 goalie to be in unison and Hellebuyck isn’t a guy who looks to the bench for a coach’s challenge unless he truly believes one is required.
This isn’t a guy who cries wolf because he’s worried about his stats being impacted in a negative way.
As for the play in question, Jets defenceman Neal Pionk was engaged in a battle with Wild centre Joel Eriksson Ek just outside the crease and as Eriksson Ek was taken to the ground, that’s when the stick potentially impeded Hellebuyck’s ability to push across and try to stop Matt Boldy’s shot towards what was nearly an open net — a scoring chance which was only available in the first place because of an outstanding cross-ice pass from Kirill Kaprizov.
That the coach’s challenge was unsuccessful and the goal was allowed to stand was not important.
It didn’t cost the Jets anything, other than a delay-of-game minor that they were able to kill off.
As for the question about whether or not Bowness considered taking Hellebuyck out of the game after either the fifth or sixth goals, he wasn’t giving a whole lot of thought about leaving him in too long.
“Listen, (goalies) want to finish the game. He’s a competitive guy,” said Bowness. “I love the guy and I love his compete. He wasn’t at fault. It’s not like ‘okay, the goalie is having a bad night.’ That wasn’t the case at all, so let him finish the game.”
The Jets had too many passengers in this first meeting of the season with the Wild, but Hellebuyck wasn’t one of them.
No, he wasn’t quite as sharp as he’d been in his 13 previous starts, but this result had more to do with some unfortunate puck luck (as two of the goals allowed went off him and then off teammates on the way into the net), coupled with the poor play in front of him.
Hellebuyck still finished with 33 saves as his goals-against average crept up to 2.35 and save percentage dropped slightly to .928.
Not only does Hellebuyck hate losing, he hates getting pulled and he’s made a habit of his career to not let tough outings linger.
“You can ask him, but he probably thinks he should save every shot but that’s just his mentality,” said forward Kyle Connor, who scored the lone goal for the Jets, his sixth of the season. “We can’t be giving up 2-on-0s and back doors on the power play. He’s one of our best players, one of the best players in the league too. I know he’ll bounce back. He’ll be one of our best players the rest of the season. That’s just how he is.”
“Connor has been our best player this year. He was great again,” added Jets defenceman Nate Schmidt. “We didn’t give him a lot of chances to even be in on some of the saves. The last one, what are you supposed to do? It’s cross-corner, bar down on you. You have to give him more of a chance than that after everything he’s done for us so far.”
When discussing his assessment of how things transpired and went off the rails, Bowness delivered a message to his team that left no room for interpretation.
In building a record of 11-6-1 that has the Jets in the chase for top spot in the division, they’ve worked hard to establish a standard and with that comes a certain expectation that is required on a nightly basis.
The Jets clearly didn’t measure up on Wednesday, so that’s why Bowness felt it was important to address his team after the blowout, rather than let the players vent their frustrations amongst themselves.
“No, we don’t flush it. Not a chance. Not letting that go,” said Bowness. “One of the concerns is the lack of discipline. That really bothered me. Penalties at the wrong time. Turnovers at the wrong time. Yapping at the refs. Those things lead into other issues. But clearly not our best effort.
“I’m not a believer in these ‘learn lessons.’ I believe there are harsh reminders of how to play this game the right way. Harsh reminders of how to win in this league. One of the things we talked about after the game is these teams are chasing us now. Alright, two things with that. Take pride in the fact that you’re there. But also take the responsibility that comes with being on a good team. There’s a responsibility that comes with that. Being prepared, and playing the right way. (We did) none of those things.”
This was another example of Bowness being highly critical, but doing so in an honest, yet caring manner.
It’s an integral part of the culture of accountability that the Jets are working hard to instill.
“We’ll wash it away with watching some of the bad stuff. You have to understand what the league can do to you if you come in and you’re not ready,” said Schmidt. “You have to learn from it. You have to. There are times when that would happen if the puck is going in off guys and that’s happening all game, then maybe you don’t watch it.
“When you don’t play good for 50 minutes it doesn’t give you a good chance to win. You have to make sure you learn from it.”